Out of the Mouths of Babes (KC Dyer, Susin Nielsen, Janet Gurtler, Mandy Hubbard)
Q: How much research in order to find your character’s voices? Do you interact with children/teens?
M: stumbled into writing YA, wrote first project when 23, agent directed her into changing to YA. Some authors go to the mall and listen to teens. If you don’t connect with your teen years, you can’t fake it. Immaturity is a plus.
S: Always written in 1st POV to tap into that voice. Like M said, it’s hard to mimic it if you can’t tap into those teen years, but something about 1st POV lets her tap into that character and that ends up how a lot f the humor comes out because the character isn’t aware anything they are saying/doing is funny, but the reader can see it.
*check out a trilogy called “Alice I think”
J: Really not good at being a teenager, so can really remember those years, still a big part of who she is. Gets to go back/relive those years, and in some ways, make them better. Has a teenage son and nieces, gets to eavesdrop/etc.
Q: Who do you look to for inspiration for clear/accurate voices?
J: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” -> boy POV, a kid who is mentally ill, and the way it’s written, it’s so honest and really captures the feelings of a teen boy. John Green does an intilectual/older teen voice.
M: Lauren Barnhall (sp?), Lauren Miracle (sp?). As an agent, loves issue books, but have to be really unique (esp. voice), like “Living Dead Girl”.
S: Doesn’t read a lot of YA, nervous that she’ll read something, and a year later think, “Oh, I have a good idea for a story...”, but likes John Green, and in MG, Christopher Paul Curtis “Bud, not Buddy”
KC: “Great and Future King”, “The Outsiders”
Q: Something brought up is writing YA books for the male POV, have any of you written a male POV?
J: “Waiting to Score”, difficult to write, talked to husband & son, males/females think/talk differently, and how boys react viscerally, speak shorter, etc. Enjoyed it, but probably wouldn’t write again.
S: 2/3 YA books have male POV characters, had lots of boys come up and asked, “how do you know what we’re thinking?”. Has sons, that’s part of it, but another part is once you inhabit the character (not football type boys, more quiet/outsiders), it comes.
M: Only written in 3rd POV adult romance (NASCAR romance!), had some on my list. “Boy-boy-boy” are harder in YA, there’s the notion that boys skip over the YA section. Even male authors like John Green really appeals to females. If they are too heavily “male” oriented (like a fantasy with a guy hacking up dragons/etc -> adventure), would be hard because they wouldn’t appeal to female readers as well. Has to appeal to both genres. Passed on a book she loved, but was gritty mob-story, digging graves, etc, no good female characters who the girl readers would/could relate to, and since girls are the biggest demographic, have to consider that.
Audience member: has sons, worked with kids, etc. Loved her stuff when they were younger, but now that they’re older, want edgier, more swearing, etc (newest story is about the hockey culture), wanting more street oriented/violence/etc. Do you get pressure (as an agent) to do this, to ask writers to make their stories edgier?
M: No, first author sold at auction is a Mormon, so very conservative, and sold to an editor/publisher who are totally into gritty/dark/etc. Probably there might be something wrong with your characters where they feel they aren’t ‘authentic’.
S: Maybe you want to make it more MG rather than YA?
AM: Could go in either direction...
S: You answered your own question, stick to the story you want to write. Maybe there’s something in the story that made people think it should be more edgy/etc that you need to look at.
J: It’s hard enough to write an entire novel you want to write, much less write a story you don’t want to write.
Q: What makes something edgy? Let’s talk about swearing/etc. This is always an area of controversy. If you’re writing for YA, chances are the people putting down the $ for those books aren’t the target audience, but parents/librarians/etc.
M: In Middle Grade, there are darker lines drawn in terms of content, some that push those boundaries, but in general, if you don’t need to swear, avoid it. Many publishers have guidelines that say no, so that lowers your agent’s number of choices to submit to. Those gatekeepers (parents/librarians) aren’t the same as for YA. Lots of teens buy their own books. You can do anything you want, just not gratuitous. “Nick and Nora’s Playlist” (?) huge number of f-bombs.
J: Some have swearing, but not gratuitous. Had editor ask for words to be changed to no-swear in the first chapter so librarians/parents sometimes look through the first chapter, but not further. Doesn’t like reading books with too much ‘cause it seems like they’re trying to be cool.
K: “Word Nerd” book is more upper MG/lower YA (for 10-14, MG is normally more 8-12), wasn’t thinking about exact target age group when writing, when it ended up on lists for awards, it started getting pulled from libraries/etc because Ambrose (12) calls his mom a bitch at one point, and it is very much in character (dad is dead, lives with single mom), also talks about gettign spontaneous errections, likes books, but it’s because he’s missing his dad and wishing he was still alive to talk to him. Really surprised to see articles with parents writing about how horrified they were, yet look at all the violent video games, stuff on the internet, etc. What I really hate is authors who write for young people have to feel they have to censor themselves. Wasn’t worried when wrote “Word Nerd”, but then when starting the next book, it was harder.
M: Huge selling point is the Scholastic list, because they have nation-wide book fairs, so the agent will think about whether your book would be pitched for that or not.
Q: Language itself, have you ever created your own language/words for your characters use? “Frindle”, story about a boy who renames his pencil and comes up with his own swear word.
J: “16 Things I thought were True”, has this one quirky character, says really weird things, and when the copy-editor went through it, had a really hard time because she didn’t recognize all the bizarre/crazy things. Got an idea for the character from a quirky/odd girl she met in Seattle with Mandy Hubbard. One thing I thought about in my first book is Facebook, whether to use it, or make up something different.
S: I used the Obama fist bump
Q: What about slang for your characters? Things like the Obama fist-bump get dated really easily.
M: Don’t want to go to “Clueless” slang, but it’s along the same lines as swearing. Not gratuitous. Pop culture references are trickier, had a reference about Brittany Spears (hot one of the moment)
S: Try to avoid it, but looking back, certainly they sneak in there, like the Obama bump, and Facebooks. Do it more than I realize sometimes.
Q: This is different, being mainly Contemporary authors, how to you keep it relevant, to be read in 10 years?
S: How do you do that in any book? You can’t write to become a classic.
M: “13 Reasons Why” came out in 2008, and the author personally used old tapes, so in that case, you can write something already out of date, so 10 years from now there will still be out of date.
J: I think I put more pop culture in the past than I would now since things change faster and faster.
AM: Have you run across something in a book that struck you as inauthentic, offensive, etc. What drives you crazy, as a reader?
J: If it’s not authentic teen dialogue it drives me bonkers. I’m old, but I think I have an ear for dialogue.
S: A pet peeve of mine in some YA fiction is I get really tired of the very earnest/serious stuff. Some books do it really well, but some it just blah. Some YA fiction the pacing is so far off, or the author has gotten taken over by their research
KC: Diana Gaboldon calls that, “I have done the research and now you’re going to pay
S: I’ve also read issue books where they’re all about the issue and not really about the character.
Q: I’ve had some writers come to the conference and say they have a book with a really important message that has to come across
M: I get this more in MG where it’s all about, “ wrote this book about bullying and this should teach kids about how bad bullying” the lesson should be a bi-product of a good book. In every good book the character grows/changes/learns through the course of the book. Don’t focus on a message.
J: Google Pixar’s 10 rules of storytelling. “Don’t come up with the theme until you’re done the story, then go back and work it in”. If you start with the theme/message, it’s hard not to get preachy.
Q: Are there cliches writers should be avoided, like ‘bullies’?
J: -> recap of former workshop. Cliches are there for a reason, but put your own twist on it and make it fresh.
S: That is a good point. Like, in “Hunger Games”, there is a love triangle, but the world and approach was so different. It’s all about authentic character, and that’s how it’s going to make it.
M: I see too much of bullies. Wish eveyr writer could spend a month reading the slush pile, but even if I didn’t know what the last trend was, I’d be able to guess by what’s in my pile as writers are chasing trends (writing the latest fresh thing thy loves). The market is really looking for Contemporary with a hook, “13 Reasons Why”, Allie Carter (sp?) that kind of thing, and every time I offer one one good one, 4 other agents offer on the same thing, so I know that’s what other agents are looking for to. When you’re telling a story about regular people though, there’s much stronger focus needed on voice, because that’s what’s going to make it stand out.
KC: Also remember the cyclical nature, like vampires. The nature of publishing is very cyclical, so maybe not today, but one day.
Q: Let’s talk about love. What’s your stance on love?
S: I’m not for it. Okay, since my books are upper MG, the characters have crushes on people, but that’s not the focus of the books, and I think I would find it harder to write a romance, maybe because my relationships in teen years were so pathetic.
J: I always have romance in them, and I always think I’m writing one, but when people read them, it’s actually really not what they’re about. It’s a big part of being a teenager, I wish I had more since the ones that focus strongly sell really well. I think my next book is more romance-y is more than before, but still probably not a ‘romance’. Maybe I just have a dark mind.
KC: Love, especially with teens, is multifaceted
J: “How I lost You” is about best friends and how their relationship falls apart, and it’s my book that’s doing the lest well, I think because there’s not enough love/romance.
M: Anything with kissing is good for me. It’s the romance that sells me every time. Since the day I became an agent, I’ve said, “If you’re writing a YA Romance, I want to see it.” Nice thing about YA is you can have an entire book focus on romance, but the ‘happily ever after’ isn’t necessary. MG is great with the stirrings of first love/crush.
AM: Talking about genre, what is New Adult? Is that a sub-category of YA?
M: To me, they’re a sub-set of adult, mostly published by adult imprints/etc. To me it doesn’t make sense because there’s always been stories with characters in their early 20’s within other genres.
KC: Let’s take it down one level. If you’re writing YA, what is the target audience?
M: 15-18, but there are exceptions like Amy Reed’s debut where the protagonist was 13, but she was getting into drugs/alcohol, so it was heavier content. If the characters are any older than the summer after high-school... then don’t query as YA. Sometimes you just have to pitch as YA or NA and see where you find success.
J: My girl characters are usually 17, in the latest book, had to make 18 because that’s the age they legally have to cross the border (road trip to the USA). Readers don’t read down, they read up, so I’m comfortable with that.
S: I’m most comfortable with 13-14, so yeah, more upper MG.
KC: So, you don’t pick the age of the character
M: I’ve had people pitch and choose an age, but the content is for older or younger when you get down to it
AM: This goes back to the topic of love, going back, how do you make it come across how every kid feels like they are unique in wanting love
J: you mean they want to feel like their want for love is special?
J: I think as teenagers we often think out feelings are unique, and that’s good because teenagers can relate. What’s your question?
AM: How do you show that the character is unique, not just they think they’re unique.
S: Well, looking at “The Fault in our Stars” has this wonderful doomed relationship, first love, first sex, etc, but that’s not what they story is just about, there’s all this stuff going on around the romance.
J: Your character would think their love is unique
M: That’s where readers connect, because they think, “Oh, other people feel that way too.”
Q: What’s your best advise for a beginning author starting out?
M: Give yourself permission to write crap because crap can be fixed. I have 8 books lined up in my office, so when I’m thinking “This sucks!” with my current MS, I look up and go, “I’ve done this before. “Writing a book is a lot like driving at night. You can only see so far, but you can still get all the way home.”
J: Persistence. You have to be persistent to finish, and then to pursue publishing. one book isn’t the only book you’re ever going to write, especially if you want a career.
S:It’s hard for me to add to what the other two said, but my word is just to write. When you have the lousy days, which I have frequently had when you stare at the page and have no idea where I’m going, and the best thing to do is write anything, even if it’s just a paragraph and I throw it out the next day, often the next day I go back and know how to write better. It’s so much better than staring at the blank page.